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Steel Island

The culture of the steelpan stems from its deep African roots. After the abolition of salvery in 1834, the Africans first settled Laventille behind the bridge that crosses the Dry River which ran along its foothills. Because it cost a penny to cross the bridge, it was virtually closed to the Africans. Despite poverty's hardships, life teemed in the area along with many of the African customs which divided along tribal or religious lines.



During slavery the Africans on each plantation developed a sense of oneness brought on by their common plight which translated itself into friendly rivalry among the various estates. The planters encouraged many forms of competition, including the stickfighting sport. The result was that the emancipated groups became tribe-like, having little social communication with other areas except to carry on the rivalries of their former lives. Each district had a tamboo bamboo band which spurred on each district's champion stickfighters with its chants and rhythms. The stickfighting tournaments often degenerated into free-for-alls. The rivalry brought them into open conflict.

Stick Fighting

Laventile Hills


Since the authorities generally ignored the area, and there was no means of livelihood or economic support, the area degenerated into slum-like conditions, with a minority developing a bad reputation. The majority, however, were good, normal, upright and law-abiding citizens. There were particular groupings of people who shared the slave voyage on the British men-of -war who held singing and dancing in high esteem. They demonstrated their artistic skills at wakes, dances, and religious ceremonies.

Dancing the Bele



Red Army Steelband

As the steelbands emerged, gangs started to attach themselves to them. In those days every district around Port of Spain was its own island, and the steelband within its boundaries was its army, providing warriors to uphold its sovereignty. American movies and the presence of the American Navy base in Trinidad provided the means of identification with a culture that condoned the use of force to settle disputes. Identifying with movie characters in the westerns, ganster movies, and war and propaganda films caused many of the bands to change their names. John John Steelband became Destination Tokyo. Others became Casablanca, Free French, Invaders, Red Army, Rising Sun, Five Graves to Cairo, Tripoli, Boys Town, and Renegades. Hell Yard Tamboo Bamboo band became Cross of Lorraine, now called All Stars, and Laventille's Dead End Kids became the Desperadoes.


The panman in those days was fully aware of his social position as the dregs of society. History repeated itself from the outlawing of the beating of skin drums at religious festivals to the later prohibition of calypso singing and banning certain aspects of the Carnival celebration. When the economically and socially deprived underclass was denied their right of self-expression through their music which gave them a means of creating their own cultural identity, these youths deliberately became "bad boys", continuing their war against the oppressors, and became violent by choice. Since nothing could be gained by fighting the colonial authorities, their frustration was turned on each other, and gang wars became the order of the day with violence occurring among rival bands and between bands and the police. The authorities gave violence as their reason for opposing steelband.


Girl Pat Steel Orchestra

No wonder light-skinned middle class parents were upset when they couldn't stop their sons from beating pans. They had fallen in love with pan and became a part of the revolution without having to bear the full brunt of the struggle. Their involvement helped to diffuse the violence and in the process helped to liberate the steeband movement. It became glamorous and prestigious. Dixieland was the first middle-class band, followed by Silver Stars, and in the early 1950's Girl Pat, an all female group of teachers, civil servants and other white collar workers.

The most resounding sociological achievement was the steelbands' racial integration which spread to every ethnic group in the society.

Silver Stars


Steelbands entered the bourgeois clubs and middle class home dance parties. Sponsorship entered the picture with Dixieland receiving sponsorship from Jeffrey's Beer. In 1956 Pan American World Airways sponsored the North Stars enabling the band to make many tours and recordings. Soon other steelbands attracted wealthy sponsors. The music began to advance as well with the discipline and dedication of the panmen. By 1962, when Trinidad & Tobago became independent from 165 years of British rule, violence in the steelband had virtually ceased, as evidenced by more recent steelband names like Tropical Angel Harps, Merrytones, Birdsong, Rising Stars, Starlift, and Harmonites. The music began to advance as well with the discipline and dedication of the panmen such as Belgrave Bonaparte and his band Southern Symphony from southern Trinidad who introduced properly arranged music to steelbands in the 1950's.

School Steelbands


Pat Bishop with Desperadoes

Brilliant steelband composers / arrangers emerged such as Len "Boogsie" Sharpe, Robert Greenidge, Clive Bradley, Leon "Smooth" Edwards, Jit Samaroo, Pellum Godard, Ray Hollman, Yohan Popwell and Professor Ken Philmore as well as classical arrangers / conductors such as Pat Bishop, Anthony Prospect, Jerry Jemmot and Dawn Batson.


All Stars' Panyard

In the early days of tamboo bamboo the panyard was known as the jamette yard where stick-fighting, dice throwing, card games, and the sale of housewares took place. A shady tree provided the only decor needed. Today the panyard has become more of a community show place such as Exodus's Pan Theatre which also hosts theatrical performances, night cricket, and the first Pan Ramajay (mini Panorama consisting of pansides of no more than 10 players). Other examples are the Desperadoes' Community Center and Renegades' concert yard.


Every village in Trinidad and Tobago has a steelband with its own panyard which is a world of its own, a community for pan and a place of love, devotion, and sharing, whether it's a piece of music, a bite of food, or a dollar. Here the panman makes contact not only with his friends and other pan players, but more importantly, he overcomes his fears and anxieties as he develops the skills and techniques that allow him to find and arouse the joyous heart of the pan. "For the pan player who finds himself on the path to musical excellence, the experience is like spiritual enlightenment."

Renegades' Panyard

Blue Diamonds' Panyard

The panyard is a place for safe-keeping of the pans, a meeting place where pan enthusiasts, pan tuners, arrangers, and music teachers meet for the purpose of planning the strategy for winning the Panorama competition championship on the Saturday before Carnival. Today the bands are disciplined, and their business management decides how to use the bands' resources. The panyard is analogous to a football club and provides the common ground for group solidarity and the binding of its members into a strong union that makes for greater efficiency in the realization of shared goals.

Besides pan, the community plays sports and has a center for culture in the panyard. There you can tap the grassroots resources of a community. During Carnival season the panyards are social gathering places for the local community to hear their band practice for Panorama and support them on the road to victory. People from all over town, including foreign tourists, visit the panyards to enjoy the music, pick their choice to win Panorama, and to party, as there is always refreshment and a snack.


King of Bands
Peter Mnnishall, Designer

The steelband owes its birth and development to Carnival, and Carnival could not have grown without the steelband. Carnival means a merry revelry or festival. The word came from the Latin for "O Flesh, Farewell" and refers to the merry making season observed in Roman Catholic countries preceding lent. In ancient times the celebration lasted from Epiphany (January 6) to midnight of Shrove Tuesday, the last day before lent.


Today, carnival has been the pride and main tourist attraction of many countries such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans in the U.S. (celebrated since 1857) and Carnival in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. However, Trinidad's Carnival has been celebrated since 1784. It owes its origins to the French planters who settled during Trinidad's Spanish colonization. Before the end of slavery, Carnival in Trinidad was celebrated only by the then white upper and middle classes. It enabled most of the non-African population to adopt fictitious social roles and to overstep social boundaries. Carnival started in December with house to house singing and dancing and built up to the grand Masked Ball, when all restrictions in social behavior were tossed aside, forgotten, and gave way to joyful abandon by all with the exception of the Africans who were strictly forbidden to participate except to provide entertainment for the upper-class as musicians or dancers. After emancipation, the Africans completely took over and joined the festivities with vengeance, depicting and mimicking the lifestyle and dress of the former masters. The French Creoles withdrew from the festival because the whites frowned upon it, deeming it low-class and degenerating. So by the 1800's Carnival had become a focal point for the retention of African music, dance, costumes and rituals. The African drums provided rhythm, which when outlawed, gave way to tamboo bamboo. When that, also, was outlawed, the beating of metal objects took over, culminating in the creation of the steelband.


Now the Carnival staged event with the largest attendance and most pre-event "street corner" discussion is Panorama, the Super Bowl of Music and heartbeat of Trinidad & Tobago. Radio and TV announcers give play by play commentary after each band's performance (the bands being composed of 100 players) as the judges choose the world's champion steelband for the year.



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